By Cheyenne Atchison
Throughout my life, I have received the same question repeatedly.
“What are you?”
This past week I gave a campus tour when a parent of a prospective student asked me thequestion. He said I had “an interesting look” as he gestured towards my face.
Sometimes it comes after a couple conversations with an acquaintance and other times upon my first meeting with a more unreserved counterpart. As a kid, I knew who I was. My dad is black and my mother is Mexican. My grandmother immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a teenager. The answer was simple, or at least, it seemed simple. I knew what I was, but who was I?
Was I equal parts black and Mexican, or did I lean more towards one? Was it unfair or wrong toeither parent if I showed one race more than the other? Was it unfair to the “true” members of either race that I, a “fraud,” identified with them and their daily struggles? Should I have felt guilty when I wanted to identify with one race when it was convenient, and dispose of the other when I shared that race with the latest criminal on TV? Even going to the doctor, taking a standardized exam or getting my driver’s license became an identity struggle as I didn’t know which blank or bubble I should have filled. I didn’t want to define my race because I didn’t want to solely be one thing over the other, but when they were asking me point blank in Section C on
Page 1 of 3, I had no choice.
Once I answered the question, other interrogations ensue. As they got more invasive, both my answers and my patience become short. Even though I could not or should not be upset with anyone for asking, I became bored and exhausted of the same reactions, same questions and the same expressions. At times, it was my family that was my harshest critic, rather than those who were just trying to strike a conversation; it was my parents and grandparents that were inadvertently striking a controversy in my mind of who I really was. My dad would ask when I would “make more black friends” and my mom would wonder why I didn’t want a quinceñera. On both sides, I would be considered “too white” to the point of being ”embarrassed” of my heritage. I didn’t act upon the stereotypes assigned to either race. The idea that by not giving into these societal expectations, I created a disregard for my culture, was instilled by those closest to me.
For me, the journey to self-acceptance started with realizing that race, although others may saydifferently, can only do so much. In today’s world, it feels like our outward appearance automatically characterizes us. But, what I didn’t realize was that although we are judged, my words and actions say more about me than my skin color or outward appearance ever could. This realization inclined me to care more about how I represented myself. I paid more attention to how I spoke, what I did, and even who I associate myself with. I refused to give others the power to define who I was, so I made an effort to do it for them.
Today, as I continue to grow and discover my beliefs, political ideologies, strengths and weaknesses, I find myself. I’ve realized that it is not “what” I am, it is “who” I am that matters. One race, or two, does not define how I should speak or carry myself. Being Black and Mexican adds to my character. Calling myself Black but choosing not to attend a historically Black college like my grandfather does not make me any less black. Just as not being fluent in Spanish doesn’t take away my right to call myself Mexican.
My race cannot set limits on who I am as a person because, while race can be binary, I can’t be. It’s a growing process of self-acceptance that I’m constantly coming to terms with. I’ve learned that what I am is not nearly as important as who I am. What I am is predestined, it’s handed down to me, but who I am gives me the liberty to create a culture entirely new. I’m more than who my parents are or where my ancestors came from. I’m my inherited culture and a culture all on my own.